WINSTON — Tava paused momentarily before quickly joining her new companions Alice and George for a midmorning meal of bamboo, hay and apples.
Wildlife Safari keepers presented the animal park’s newest resident by coaxing out the 35-year-old African elephant with food. Tava moved to the animal park late last month from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif. She joins the park’s two other African elephants, George, 32, and Alice, 43.
Tava can be viewed by visitors driving through the park starting March 23.
Executive Director Dan Van Slyke said the park has been searching for a third elephant since Tiki died three years ago. Tiki, a female who lived at Wildlife Safari for 37 years, succumbed to respiratory problems in October 2010 at the age of 40.
Elephants are social animals, and it was important to find a new companion for George and Alice after Tiki’s death, Van Slyke said.
“They’re a herd animal. There needs to be at least three,” he said. “Alice, she and Tiki were really close, so we really wanted to get another female in here.”
George and Alice recently met Tava, who appeared in the 1988 movie “Coming to America” starring comedian Eddie Murphy. The meeting couldn’t have gone smoother, lead elephant keeper Katie Alayan said.
“They have a great relationship already, where they’re just hanging out with each other,” she said. “We didn’t have any negative interactions at all.”
Alayan said Wildlife Safari keepers are pleased Alice and George are getting along so well with Tava, who was orphaned in the wild and raised by humans.
“We’ve been observing all three of them sleeping together, which is really good. That shows that they’re forming that bond,” she said. “We really wanted to give those elephants that companionship. That’s what they’re all about, that social group.”
Wildlife Safari put out notice that it was looking for an elephant through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums shortly after Tiki’s death. It took awhile to find one because zoos aren’t often willing to part with an elephant, Van Slyke said. The park was fortunate that due to a remodel Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was looking to donate Tava to a new home, he said.
Van Slyke and Wildlife Safari keepers traveled to Vallejo in January to meet Tava. Because both parks have similar elephant programs, they agreed Tava would be a good fit at Wildlife Safari, he said.
At Six Flags, Tava interacted with people and participated in activities she wouldn’t have done in the wild, like painting, to keep her from getting bored, Van Slyke said.
At Wildlife Safari, the elephants paint, wash cars, crush wine grapes and play the harmonica. Park visitors can also touch the elephants and feed them snacks.
“That’s what the people at Six Flags wanted was that personal interaction,” Van Slyke said. “They wanted her to go to an environment where she was going to have that kind of stimulation.”
By Memorial Day, park visitors should be able to interact with Tava through Wildlife Safari’s elephant encounter program, he said.
Transporting Tava, who is 9 feet tall and weighs 8,500 pounds, from Vallejo to Winston was a big project, Alayan said. Early in the morning on the day she was scheduled to travel to Winston, Tava got into a climate-controlled crate that was lifted by a crane onto a flatbed truck, Alayan said. Tava arrived in Winston about eight hours later where keepers at Wildlife Safari were waiting with another crane to lift her crate into the elephant enclosure.
“She did great the whole time,” Alayan said. “She was really calm.”
Alayan said Tava seems to be adjusting easily to her new home.
“She’s doing real well. She’s got a great personality,” she said. “This is a really exciting time for the elephant program at Wildlife Safari.”
• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.